If the war between Bosnia and Serbia has come to be viewed as a paradigm for the atrocity of civil warfare in our time, Danis Tanovic’s feature debut “No Man’s Land” is the 1993 Bosnian conflict in microcosm. The struggle, sometimes ironic, sometimes dramatic, between a Bosnian and Serbian soldier stranded together in a trench between their armies’ lines stands as both an allegory of these hostilities and a universal symbol for the absurdity of all wars with their irrational hatreds, ineffectual peacekeepers, and blundering media. Bosnian-born Tanovich makes an effort to stay away from casting blame on just one side, mainly because his point lies elsewhere. As a tyro auteur, he has a heavy-handed way of delineating characters and situations that makes this well-meaning film awfully familiar at times. Though this may temper critical response, the plus side could be appeal to a wider audience beyond the usual fest crowd. Relieved of the need to distinguish the sides in a war that is already beginning to seem far away, viewers need no specialized knowledge to understand pic’s pacifist aim.
To the tune of a haunting lullaby, a patrol of Bosnian soldiers crawls through the fog towards their lines. When the pea soup lifts at dawn, they discover they’re within yards of the Serbs, who open fire. Blazing tanks, cannons and machine guns soon finish off all but Chiki (Brancko Djuric), who takes shelter in a trench in no man’s land. Later, two Serbs arrive on a reconnaissance mission. They cruelly booby trap the body of Chera, a dead Bosnian soldier, with a “bouncing mine,” which will jump into the air and explode as soon as the body is moved. Chiki kills the inventor of this sinister device and wounds his comrade, a raw recruit with glasses named Nino (Rene Bitorajac).
First Chiki and then Nino gets hold of a rifle, lording it over the other. Finally they both have guns and, biting and snapping at each other, they call an uneasy, mistrustful cease-fire in the trench. Briefly they join forces to attract the attention of their camps.
Both the Serbs and Bosnians decide to call on the UN peacekeeping forces, UNPROFOR, to get the men out.
Basically in the mold of a serious, macho combat film up to this point, film suddenly gives way to ironic Balkan comedy in depicting a UN detachment of Frenchmen tooling around in their unused white tank. They are lead by the upright but bored Capt. Marchand (Georges Siatidis), who decides to defy stay-put orders and investigate the trench. Tanovic saves his biggest salvos, however, for mission heads like Colonel Soft (Simon Callow), an insufferable Eurocrat who plays chess with his secretary while rigorously keeping out of the war.
Even-handed to a fault, pic salvages UNPROFOR’s reputation when Marchand soberly faces the terrible situation that has developed in the trench. In a worthy plot twist, the Bosnian soldier lying on the mine turns out to be very much alive, but in a fatal trap.
Poor Chera (Filip Sovagovic) dare not move a muscle or he’ll be blown up. A German expert at defusing mines is called in. Meanwhile Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge), a savvy TV reporter, jumps into the act, first outsmarting Marchand and then helping him get his superiors to move.
Shooting in bright, clear colors, cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende suggests a cartoonish quality to the war. The polished cast of thesps also brush the black humor that is never far from this tragic tale. Although the hatred between Chiki and Nino grows the longer they’re together, comic relief keeps the atmosphere from turning too dark. Film’s most subtle credit is the score, composed by Tanovic.